The snobbery of Ipods

Google: Violating European privacy laws?

By now, you may have heard about Gmail, Google’s new email service. Part of what makes it cool is that Google is offering unusually large storage space — 1 gig per person, for free! That’s 500 times bigger than Hotmail, and it’s a brilliant marketing move. First off, it acknowledges that email these days often consists of rich-media attachments — audio or video files — that take up lots of space. Secondly, it recognizes that hard drive space simply isn’t very expensive any more; it’s about a dollar a gigabyte, a price that would easily drop in half if you bought in bulk, as Google would do.

Most importantly, it acknowledges that people want to save tons and tons and tons of mail. Indeed, our inboxes are often like filing cabinets for life — quick and easy places to access the documents and information we need, organized in that wonderfully human-scaled format, chronologically. I currently have over 4,000 messages in my inbox, the oldest of which date back three or four years. I don’t bother using an address book because I can instantly do a “find” in my inbox to find a message from someone with all their information in it; and since I use pine, my inbox is accessible from any computer worldwide. And sure, I’m nuts. But I think this idea — never deleting any important emails, and keeping them around forever — will become a much more common way of organizing one’s thoughts, as hard-drive space becomes ever cheaper. This is part of what I wrote about in my recent essay on “online honesty”: We are facing a world in which everyone will be remembering more and more, because there’ll be less and less reasons to forget things.

Ah, but what about when you want to forget something? What if you want to delete a message? What if you really need to eliminate something — for legal or personal reasons?

As it turns out, Google may not let you do that. Their terms of service warn that even if you delete an email, Google may still keep copies, “even after you have deleted them from your mailbox or after the termination of your account.” What’s more, Google is aiming to link together patterns in your web searching and your inbox, the better to deliver ads. Put together, this may constitute a breach of European privacy laws, as Reuters reported today:

“This is not just ‘buyer beware’. Consumers should be aware that there’s a vast violation of European law occurring here,” said Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, a citizens’ group with offices in Britain and the United States.

Europe’s privacy protection laws are much stricter than those in the United States, where Google is based. European consumers, for example, have the right to retain control over their communications.

“If a person deletes an email, he should be confident that email is actually deleted,” said Maurice Westerling, co-founder of Bits of Freedom, another privacy interest group, based in the Netherlands.

“Besides, Google cannot just open emails. Communication in Europe has a very high degree of protection.”

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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